Known for its endless desert landscapes, iconic yuccas, and distinct rock formations, Joshua Tree is a must-visit for anyone traveling through California. Spanning more than 790 acres, there is no shortage of things to do in Joshua Tree or incredible nature to see.
Out of all the US National Parks, Joshua Tree is truly unique as it merges two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and Colorado. This coalition results in over 750 documented plant species and 52 species of wildlife, from bobcats to bighorn sheep.
One of the most popular ways to explore this protected area is on the many hiking trails. As a result, the dual desert is a paradise for avid trekkers, arriving with an ambitious Joshua Tree travel plan. However, don’t worry if you prefer to see nature without getting out of breath. Many of the top sights do not require a strenuous trek, and there are plenty of things to do in Joshua Tree besides hike.
So, if you’re planning a trip to this beautiful part of California and wondering what to do in Joshua Tree, read on to discover the top sights and attractions.
What to Do in Joshua Tree National Park (And Beyond)
From huge boulders to deep canyons to high peaks, one thing’s for sure, you will not be bored in this natural adventure playground.
Catch the sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden
Cholla Cactus Garden is one of the most unique Joshua Tree attractions and one of the best areas of the park to snap that perfect Instagram shot. The small area in the middle of the park is full of human-sized cacti that you can explore via a short boardwalk trail.
While you can visit any time of the day, the garden is genuinely mesmerizing at sunrise. So if you can, come early to see the whole area illuminate as the sun comes up over the horizon. While this particular cactus is called Teddy Bear Cactus, don’t try to cuddle it as it feels just as prickly as it looks.
Climb the famous Arch Rock
If you prefer climbing over hiking, Arch Rock is one of your must-do activities in Joshua Tree. Arch Rock is a 30-foot tall arch-shaped rock that sits atop a field of vast boulders. Unlike some other parts of the park, climbing Arch Rock is permitted, allowing you to make your way to the top for some kick-ass photos.
As you can imagine, climbing Arch Rock is one of the most popular things to do in Joshua Tree National Park, so you may have to wait your turn. Also, climbing it is entirely optional, and it’s still worth a visit if you don’t feel like scaling it up as there are fantastic photo opportunities from below, too.
Arch Rock is located by White Tank Campground, and reaching it is easy. Follow the clearly marked desert trail there and back from the parking lot, about a 0.5-mile round trip.
Check out the iconic Skull Rock
When it comes to hikes in Joshua Tree, Skull Rock is probably the most fascinating out of all the Joshua Tree must-sees. The famous sandstone rock resembles a human skull complete with ‘eye sockets.’ The formation occurred due to erosion caused by rain accumulation. As a result, Joshua Tree visitors flock here to ponder in awe at the iconic attraction.
To reach Skull Rock, you will need to hike there as access is by foot only. Luckily, though, it’s a relatively short and easy 1.6 mile walks (2.7km), so you’ll only need to schedule an hour or so to check it out. You’ll find the trailhead on Park Boulevard by Jumbo Rocks Campground.
Hike in Cottonwood Spring
Cottonwood Spring is a hidden oasis in the southeast part of the park, full of fascinating old gold mills and mines and home to 50 bird species. Unfortunately, many visitors skip it because it’s pretty far from the other popular things to see in Joshua Tree. However, its lack of visitors makes it one of the most peaceful areas of the park, and in my opinion, well worth a visit.
There are some lovely hiking trails in Cottonwood Spring, such as the 1.5 mile (2.4km) Cottonwood Spring Nature Trail, which has splendid views and bird sightings. Alternatively, you can take the three-mile loop to Mastodon Peak. On this route, you will come across some super cool sights like the Mastodon Mine and the Winona Mill, along with tons of fascinating geology.
Take note, though, while the area is beautiful, there is minimal shade, so it gets scorching during the day. So, go early in the morning or just before sunset for a more enjoyable experience.
Admire Keys View
Keys View is the highest viewpoint in the park and one of the most famous places to visit in Joshua Tree for sunset. As the sun descends over the valley, you’ll witness the sky turning gorgeous shades of pink and purple, giving the landscape a glowing appearance.
The high spot gives sweeping panoramas across the park, displaying Mount San Jacinto and Mount Gorgonio in their glory and Palm Springs and Coachella Valley in the background. On a clear day, you may even spot the Salton Sea glistening to the southeast of the park. The views are undoubtedly magnificent, but it gets busy from late afternoon onwards. So, we recommend arriving 45 minutes before sunset to nab a parking space.
Take a tour of Keys Ranch
Keys Ranch may look like a simple homestead in the middle of the desert, but it’s actually a historical landmark. The ranch was home to the area’s most significant person in history, William F. Keys. The well-known miner lived here for 60 years and played a crucial role in the town’s early settlement.
The 20th-century ranch is now a protected building, and you can take a guided walking tour around it to learn more about its history. The 90-minute guided walk is led by one of the park rangers and is undoubtedly one of the coolest things to do in Joshua Tree besides hike. Unfortunately, tours only run from October to May, though, as the summer months are too hot.
Climb to the top of Ryan Mountain
Of course, our list of things to do in Joshua Tree National Park would not be complete without a challenging hike thrown in. Ryan Mountain is the second highest peak in the park but the tallest climbable one. The 2.3 mile (4.8km) Ryan Mountain trail will take you to the top, beginning with a dirt trail and ending with numerous steep stone steps.
The climb is not a walk in the park by any means and is best suited to those with some hiking experience. However, once you reach the peak, you’ll be rewarded with the most incredible views across the park and the surrounding valleys.
Go on a guided rock climbing adventure
Suppose the boulders and peaks have got you seeking adventure, but you have no climbing experience. In that case, you’ll love the adrenaline-filled guided rock climbing adventures found throughout Joshua Tree. Various climbing schools in the area will take you on a half or full-day trip climbing in the national park. They will supply you with all the climbing gear, teach you how to safely ascend and descend, and take you out to the best spots suitable for your level.
Moreover, because they tailor the private classes to your abilities, a guided adventure is also a fantastic experience if you’ve climbed multiple times before. Along with many intermediate spots, climbing pros can tackle the Saddle Rocks Triple (the most enormous rock in Joshua Tree) or the longest climb in the park, Caesar Augustus.
Explore the quirky Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Musem
If you’re looking for unusual things to do near Joshua Tree, look no further than the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum. This largely unknown culture spot is about a 20-minute drive outside of the park’s west entrance, so it is well worth a stop if you are heading home that way.
This open-air museum was created by visual artist and sculptor Noah Purifoy and showcases sculptures made from “junk,” mainly metal, wood, and tires. Noah added his artwork to the museum from 1989 to 2004, when he passed away, but luckily it remains open, thanks to his foundation. Wandering around the museum is a weird experience that requires an open mind. Still, it’s undoubtedly a nice break from all the rocks and yuccas!
Join a guided tour around the park
If you want to tick off most of the best things to do in Joshua Tree in a short time, you can take a half-day van tour around the park. You can opt to start the 4.5-hour guided drive in the morning or afternoon, meeting at Morton’s Steakhouse in Palm Desert. Here, you’ll jump in a comfortable climate-controlled van with your guide and head to all the top spots like Hidden Valley and Keys View.
What’s great about taking a van tour is that you’ll learn so much more about the park’s history than you would by exploring on your own. Your knowledgeable guide will tell you fascinating wild west stories, enlighten you on the area’s mining history and explain the unique vegetation and geology. In addition, there are optional short nature walks, and you’ll get plenty of time to rest your feet in between attractions.
Witness the Milky Way
If you’re staying for more than a day trip to Joshua Tree then don’t miss taking a peek outside of your accommodation to witness the Milky Way in all of its glory. Joshua Tree National Park is a Dark Sky Park, with a Night Sky Festival held annually. But no matter when you visit, you’ll have the chance to see the starry perfection twinkle above you.
Enjoy your trip to Joshua Tree National Park!
Joshua Tree FAQs
Yes, you can! While it’s recommended that you spend a weekend in Joshua Tree, you will absolutely be able to see the main highlights in a day including multiple hikes. In fact, it’s a great day trip from Palm Springs even.
It’s best to stick to the shoulder periods, March-May and October-November when the temperatures are cooler. While the park is open year-round, it is southern California after all and summer is hot!
There’s plenty to do! Recommendations include Cholla Cactus Garden, stargazing, the scenery from Keys View, rock climbing, and more.
You bet! It’s best to see it most clearly during the summer months.